Britain’s asbestos-using past is often hidden just below the surface of the ground. Local asbestos awareness campaigns, which warn of the potential risk of exposure at a planned housing development are regularly reported. Often the land proposed for new housing are brownfield sites where factories, foundries, mills and power stations once stood. In many cases, the former buildings contained significant quantities of asbestos used as insulation throughout the site, from the walls and ceilings to the boilers and hot water pipework.

The presence of asbestos on former industrial sites can still pose a serious health risk. Building on former industrial grounds has repeatedly raised alarm bells among local communities who can recall the time when the original factories and plants were operating, some as recently as the mid-1980s when asbestos was first banned in the UK.

For more than half a century a total of 5.3 million metric tonnes of asbestos was imported for widespread industrial and commercial use, and a final ban only arrived as recently as 1999. In former asbestos blackspots, such as shipyards, textile factories, paper mills and power stations, a higher than average mesothelioma mortality still remains and local communities are often more alert to the ever-present health risks.

Former power station… an “asbestos burial site”

The most recent protest was reported in north Devon, at the site of a former coal fired power station on the Taw-Torridge estuary, which was also decommissioned in the mid-80s. Local campaigners are opposing a plan to build nearly 300 new homes on ground said to be heavily contaminated with around 600 tonnes of asbestos, which also threatens the nearby conservation area of the Tarka Trail.

The housing developers say that the former power station ash beds, historically a licensed “asbestos burial site”, have been capped over the last 12 years. It is also pointed out that their planning application contains provision for the “removal of any contamination” but it is thought unlikely that the conservation area will be affected.

Unsurprisingly, opponents of the development believe there will be a significant impact, not least if there are any issues involving the cost of properly removing the large quantities of asbestos. When a large industrial site, such as a power plant is demolished, significant asbestos-containing materials can often be left behind and mixed in with the soil, rubble and debris. In some cases, demolition workers may not have disposed of the asbestos material correctly, or worse, asbestos contaminated soil was used as top soil or land fill.

Asbestos discovered at brownfield sites could be set to multiply

Asbestos contamination of the ground caused by former power stations is not unusual. A number of plants, such as those built at Battersea, Didcot Ferrybridge, Eggborough, Drax and Aberthaw were most likely to have used asbestos insulation to line walls, wires, pipes, boilers, generators and other machinery. The electrical wiring and conduits were insulated with blue asbestos, which is particularly non-reactive and highly resistant to electrical current.

In April 2010, the United Kingdom Accreditation Service (UKAS) reported that the testing of soils for asbestos had become the most regulated type of testing a laboratory can provide to the contaminated land sector. The demand for ground /soil analysis of asbestos has also increased in the last two to three years.

The discovery of asbestos at brownfield sites could be set to multiply in the years ahead. One previous government estimate of land needed for housing development was previously 164,000 acres. The current government has now pledged to get planning permission in place on 90 per cent of suitable brownfield sites for housing. At the end of January 2015, the government proposed to remove planning powers from councils that failed to put a sufficient number of local development orders (LDOs) in place.

Brownfield register to include derelict buildings

In March 2016, the Department for Communities and Local Government announced that 73 councils across England will pilot one of the new registers, which will provide information on all brownfield sites available for housing locally and speed up the construction of new homes. In some cases, the register will also include “derelict buildings” ripe for redevelopment.

Among the 15 councils with the most brownfield land taking part in the new register project include, former key asbestos industry ‘hotspots, such as Leeds, Liverpool, Manchester, Medway, Newcastle upon Tyne and Sunderland.

An estimated 1.8 million people are exposed to asbestos every year in the UK, say the Health and Safety Executive. Alongside local residents to development sites, many of the most vulnerable to exposure are known to be building contractors, tradesmen and ground clearance crews who work on building new housing on former asbestos-using sites.